Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jeyamohan and his opponents: A tale of mutual hatred and contempt

Love him or hate him but one cannot ignore Jeyamohan today. Not even Jeyakanthan was so divisive. Jeyamohan has supporters (not just readers) and opponents (not critics). The two camps are at their vociferous worst. The reader and critic are usually marginalized. When Jeyamohan delivers a speech his supporters will flood him with letters calling the speech the greatest political tract since Plato's Republic. His opponents will take to social media and ridicule the speech as if it is a Santhanam comedy. Invariably the latter will get a verbal lashing by Jeyamohan himself on his website. The democratization of information by way of blogging has liberated both Jeyamohan and his opponents. Both use the independence of a non-academic atmosphere liberally to further their own agenda. (Of course as a blogger I too use that independence).

Jeyamohan often laments lack of institutional structures to create intellectuals. To give him due credit he is doing what he can to address that lacuna. What I've to lament is the lack of an institutional structure, not just academic, for a critic to opine freely and be taken seriously. What Tamil Nadu lacks is the professional critic. The absence of an institution like New York Times Book Review or NYRB or TLS facilitates people like Jeyamohan and others to speak freely and unafraid of being held accountable. The freedom is laudable but it is not always used responsibly. I am not talking about censorship. I abhor it. When a blogger or FB commentator disagrees, however validly, Jeyamohan can dismiss it without as much as a second thought asking "what is your qualification". The implication is "I am a writer, you are not. You lack the credentials to criticize me". If Salman Rushdie asked Michiko Kakutani "how many books you wrote" it would be laughed out. To be fair to Jeyamohan who knows maybe he would welcome a Kakutani in Tamil Nadu. Or, maybe not.

Jeyamohan's recent column in 'Tamil The Hindu' proposing an idea, to write Tamil textbooks in English transliteration, to entice Tamil readers who love reading in English than any Tamil book, kicked up a fire storm. Until that column his last big fire storm was scolding the entire Tamil society just because an audience walked out, due to rain, during a speech by him. He literally hauled, an entire society, over coals just because his speech flopped in one venue. Miffed by that attitude I had meant to write a series of blogs holding him up to his own standards. Unfortunately then too, I had figured, inadvertently, in that blog of his. Jeyamohan, gentlemanly, published a regret. My thanks for that gesture.

Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, wanted to reform the English language and even left behind a large part of his fortune for that. The British did not react with indignation or heap scorn or have political leaders issue a shameless condemnation asking "how dare you, an Irishman, say this". Yet that is exactly what happened in Tamil Nadu. Jeyamohan is lucky in his enemies. He had deftly pre-empted his attackers with a prebuttal that anticipated such attacks and he had swatted the attacks with scornful prose.

Lost in the din was the question of what was Jeyamohan's qualification to pose such a question. The British ignored Shaw, thankfully. They know what parts of Shaw are to be ignored including his penchant for Stalin and socialism. Only in Tamil Nadu could Jeyamohan write an article like that and get away with it. One has to only read Steven Pinker to realize that how we learn languages, how we verbalize, how we learn grammar etc are the domain of a cognitive psychologist or a linguist. When I read Steven Pinker's 'Words and Rules' I told a cousin, ruefully, how I wish some native cognitive psychologist would rise in Tamil Nadu to write such a book.

The following criticisms are offered without any malice owing to recent squabbles. These criticisms were supposed to be woven into a cogent article and published, in Tamil, with help from a friend, as response to the tirade post-Thiruppur. Yet that did not happen but the necessity is here to voice them. Also, these mistakes have been pointed out to Jeyamohan in letters that were exchanged with respect and cordiality. I've not seen any retraction or correction. The intention is not to insult or shame into oblivion a noted writer and public intellectual. In fact many times I wonder if Jeyamohan's readers are aware of his limitations as he himself does.

While rubbishing my criticisms the worst part was when Jeyamohan flung the racist charge. In doing so he behaved exactly like his detractors of today who called him 'Nair'. Jeyamohan has used the racist charge about Western authors and intellectuals who happen to be white. Some reader sent him a youtube clip of a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus. Kraus and Dawkins were discussing Kraus's theory of how the universe came from nothing. Kraus and Dawkins are atheists and revel in mocking religion. Jeyamohan's reader is peeved at that mocking of religion. Jeyamohan's reply exercises his individual liberty of disagreeing with Dawkins but descends into, what Americans call, using the race card (see Reference below). In a shocking line he further adds "The Durant couple who wrote 'story of civlization' thought that the importance of vedanta and Buddhist nihilism is less, by half, of western philosophy. Their nonchalance will infuriate any Easterner" (see exact Tamil quote in References).

I wrote to Jeyamohan asking, very politely, 'why did you say so'. Will Durant's 'Story of philosophy' was a runaway success and a critically acclaimed book even today. Durant was nevertheless realistic about the shortcomings of his book. He wrote in a preface "The worst sin of all-though the critics do not seem to have noticed it- was the omission of Chinese and Hindu philosophy. Even a 'story' of philosophy that begins with Socrates and has nothing to say about Lao-Tze and Confucius, Mencius and Chwang-tze, Buddha and Shankara, is provincially incomplete. ...The first volume of 'the story of civilzation' attempts to atone for this ommission"'. 

I wrote to Jeyamohan "And, atone, he did in in that volume titled "Our Oriental heritage". Durant pays glorious tribute to Indian philosophy, literature and heritage in general. His chapter on Buddha and Sankara, in typical Durant style, is glowing prose. Durant in fact traveled to India to do research first hand. He met Gandhi too. As far as I read those chapters I did not see any attitude of superciliousness. Durant is not Macaulay or Churchill or a neo-imperialist historian." Jeyamohan, to be fair, said he would check his notes when he gets back from travel. I had also asked him that this is only for a private exchange. (Attention to a disgruntled Boston blogger with whom I had dinner, 'I do not seek publicity'). I thought Jeyamohan at some stage will publish a correction. Today when I re-read the blog calling Dawkins a racist I felt I was in good company.

Two wrongs do not make it right. The following criticism is not to rationalize my mistake. But it is instructive to see if Jeyamohan measures up to the standards he asks of others. Chimamanda Adichie born and graduated from Nigeria emigrated to US and later graduated in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. She became a fellow at Princeton University and wrote the critically acclaimed "Half of a Yellow Sun", based on the Biafran War, which won the prestigious Orange Prize. Later she won the MacArthur genius award.

Jeyamohan is perfectly within his rights to call her fiction trashy. Its his liberty. Yet he shocked by writing "Adichie, with no roots in Nigeria, born and brought up in USA, wrote this novel that stereotyped Nigeria unlike my well researched novel on the same country. The book was unduly praised in the west". The worst part was where he alleges cooly "who knows whether she herself wrote the book.I think several hands were involved in the book". Not content with all that slander the icing was this:"who knows why the west does all this. They probably plant books like these like landmines to destabilize Nigeria. A river of blood will flow and Hollywood can make a Hotel Rwanda movie again". Pray, my dear readers, where does one begin to get agitated about this naked slander.

Instead of looking at any criticism as just criticism Jeyamohan often attributes racism and inferiority complex. He often alleges that one who criticizes does so out of a keen sense of failure by self. What are we to make of him when he alleges "in my opinion Chinua Achebe is not at all an African writer. He writes about Africa for general consumption. He writes according to our expectations". Again, Jeyamohan is perfectly within his rights to form such an opinion. To be sure he wrote this in 2009. The first time I heard of Achebe was when he died and every major newspaper wrote glowing obituaries of him. Every obituary noted specifically that Achebe wrote fiction about Africa that would not be typical of African fiction thus far published and that he consciously wanted to expose western biases. New York Times obituary notes "“Things Fall Apart” gave expression to Mr. Achebe’s first stirrings of anti-colonialism and a desire to use literature as a weapon against Western biases. As if to sharpen it with irony, he borrowed from the Western canon itself in using as its title a line from Yeats’s apocalyptic poem". I'll not debase myself by wondering that lack of international recognition in the scale of Achebe motivated Jeyamohan to write thus. 

Capitalizing on the lack of professional critics when untrained critics, including me, seek to criticize he often finds convenient grounds, sometimes justifiable too, to ridicule the criticisms. But, in doing so, he will gladly discard even the valid parts. He did the same on two occasions with my criticisms. Going back to the Ayn Rand affair I had pointed out several important corrections. That letter, I gladly concede, was poorly constructed. An indignant Jeyamohan rubbished it in entirety. He persisted in saying that Ayn Rand died a lunatic. She did not. Its one of the greatest myths about her. He had said that to show that her philosophy was so pernicious to the mind that even its proponent went mad. I'll reserve further analyses of the Ayn Rand affair for later blogs. The most recent one talked about 'creativity' versus 'inspiration' without so much as even deigning to address it he glided by that.

Sometimes his ideological hatred blinds him and leads him to serious misunderstandings. I do sincerely believe that he has an ideological axe to grind about the west and grind it, he does, without fail. His views on holocaust mirror that of a hateful anti-semite's. In an earlier blog, after my visit to Auschwitz, I had detailed them. I still dont think he is anti-semtic. When somebody says 'holocaust has not been subjected to strict historical analyses' and adds "I am currently reading David Irving" then one wonders if he would study the issue of slavery through a KKK handbook. 

Jeyamohan's understanding of world history is often patchy. In a sweeping line he attributes, what is incorrectly often referred to as Europe's 'Dark Ages', to almost a totalitarian control of a continent by Christian Church. The 'dark ages' are more appropriately called 'medieval era' (which he does say so). Concluding the chapter on Aristotle Durant writes "and then darkness descended over Europe". The next philosopher is Francis Bacon in the 16th century. Between the collapse of the Roman empire and the birth of Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment all of Europe was in a constant churn in which religion played a part but the Church was nowhere near the omnipotent totalitarian power that Jeyamohan makes it out to be. The medieval era had its own intellectual churning and much of it had its roots in theological debates about the relationship of man, society, god, faith and reason. Durant calling it 'darkness' was only to refer to the period of unrest when no dominant philosophy or philosopher riled the roost. But Jeyamohan's slip is in attributing an incorrect cause simply because of his entrenched hatred against the Church as an 'established religion'. He does love the Bible though. (I'd disagree with calling either Christianity or Islam as 'organized religion'. They have enough variety and push and pull within them creating enough divergences. There are local eddies. On the contrary Hinduism is not as 'disorganized' as we might think. The lack of a central pontiff is not the the only reason to call it 'unorganized'. Thats a different debate)

I've digressed a bit into areas that I should have reserved for a fuller criticism. The readers letters published on his site are the most puzzling. Only he and another writer do that. I am yet to see any critical email being published. Almost all the letters are sycophantic and fawning. I do not expect any man, let alone one who has achieved much through his intellect, to take joy in publishing critical opinion of oneself. Its too much to expect. But I wish he publishes some decently critical letters. If he says that he receives none like that I'd say thats because of how critics have been treated in the past. 

I'd like to conclude by saying that reading Jeyamohan is quite an education. I'll never say that his writings are empty. That's downright silly. Another blogger wrote today, while disagreeing with Jeyamohan's idea of reforming Tamil, "Jeyamohan told me 'when I say or write about something I'd have gathered enough material to write about it for 100 pages". That's hyperbole. I'd only say 'read him. but read him, as you would read anybody, with a pinch of salt'.  

 Publisher and entrepreneur Badri Seshadri wrote a blog about why India's Mar's mission has relevance to the layman's welfare and asked "why has no intellectual in Tamil Nadu spoken or written about this". Jeyamohan responded back with a blog titled 'Mangalyan' and wrote about Sam Pitroda though Pitroda had nothing to do with Mangalyan. In an attempt to write something about a topic he knows little about he felt compelled to drag in an angle of very tangential relevance. 

Jeyamohan tried to write about technological revolution and how, contrary to his own then thinking, it has yielded good. Its a classic style of speaking about a tangential topic when we cannot speak 'to' the topic. Also, Sam Pitroda had nothing to do with the telecom revolution anyway.  The disclaimer towards the end, with a link to Badri's blog, was a cop out and irrelevant. Why write a 2 page blog and then say "I know nothing about this. This is only from my personal experience in a very limited perspective". Everyone has such experiences. But when a person is read widely and trusted on an array of subjects one could be more careful about what one chooses to write about. I wish Jeyamohan had stuck to his own advice of non-subject-matter experts not speaking about a subject. Incidentally Jeyamohan wrote a brilliant piece on Gunter Grass asking Indians not to indulge in literature when there is so much poverty around.

I'd also add that I've far greater grouses against S.Ramakrishnan who gleefully dishes out his version of history. About that another day. 

PS: I am no blind worshipper of Ayn Rand either. Before reading Ayn Rand I read Nehru's 'Discovery of India'. Asked to write what is his philosophy of life Nehru wrote "life is too illogical to be contained within a single philosophy". I believe that till today.


1. Jeyamohan on Chimamanda Adichie ""
"ஸீமமெண்டா என்கோசீ அடிச்சி ஒரு அமெரிக்க தயாரிப்பு. அமெரிக்காவில் பிறந்து வளர்ந்த அவருக்கு நைஜீரிய வேர்களே இல்லை. கேள்விப்பட்டவற்றின் அடிப்படையில் மீண்டும் நைஜீரிய இனக்குழுசார்ந்த உபதேசிய கனவுகளை கிளறியும், இனக்குழு சார்ந்த அவநம்பிக்கைகளை சீண்டியும் இந்நாவலை எழுதியிருக்கிறார்.....நைஜீரியாவில் கண்ணிவெடிகளை புதைக்க முயல்கிறார்கள் ஏகாதிபத்தியவாதிகள். அவை வெடித்து அங்கே ரத்தஆறு ஓடினால் அவர்களே காமிராவுடன் போய் ‘ரவாண்டா ஓட்டல்’ போன்ற படங்களை எடுப்பார்கள். அவற்றைப்பற்றி நம் ஆங்கில இதழ்கள் கட்டுரைகள் எழுதும். நம் சிற்றிதழ் அறிவுஜீவிகள் பெரிய வியாசங்கள் சமைப்பார்கள்…" (See the blog link for full discussion)

"சினுவா ஆச்சிபி ஆப்ரிக்க நாவலாசிரியர் அல்ல என்றே நான் சொல்வேன், அவர் ஆப்ரிக்கர்களைப் பற்றி பொதுவான உலக வாசகர்களுக்கு எழுதுபவர். அவர் காட்டும் ஆப்ரிக்கா அல்ல ஆப்ரிக்கா. அது நாம் காணவிரும்புவது மட்டுமே. நம் எதிர்பார்ப்புகளுக்கு ஏற்ப எழுதப்பட்டது. நான் வோல் சொயிங்கா அல்லது பென் ஒக்ரியையே நாடிச்செல்வேன். எனக்கு தேவையானது அசலான பண்பாட்டு தன்மை கொண்ட எழுத்தே."

5. On Will Durant and Richard Dawkins
" டாக்கின்ஸுடையது ஓர் வெள்ளையர் மைய நோக்கு. அங்கே உள்ள, அவர்களைப் பாதிக்கிற விஷயங்களை மட்டுமே அவர் பொருட்டாகக் கருதுகிறார். இந்த நோக்கு பல சிந்தனையாளர்களுக்கு இருந்திருக்கிறது. மிகச்சிறந்த உதாரணம் உலக தத்துவ வரலாற்றை எழுதிய வில் துரந்த் தம்பதியினர். அவர்களின் நோக்கில் ஒரு சராசரி ஐரோப்பிய சிந்தனையாளரில் பாதிப்பங்கு முக்கியத்துவம்கூட வேதாந்தம் அல்லது சூனியவாத பௌத்தம் போன்ற ஒரு சிந்தனைமரபுக்குக் கிடையாது. அவர்கள் எழுத்தில் உள்ள அலட்சியம் எந்தக் கீழைநாட்டவனையும் கசப்படையச்செய்வது"

6. On Europe's 'Dark age'
மத்தியகாலகட்டம் என்பது சிந்தனையில் செமிட்டிக் மரபு மட்டுமே நீடித்த, அது மட்டுமே அனுமதிக்கப்பட்ட, ஒரு காலகட்டம். திரள்வாதம் என்று அயன் சொல்லும் அனைத்துமே மத்தியகாலகட்ட கிறித்தவ சிந்தனைக்கே சரிவரப்பொருந்துவதை சாதாரணமாகக் காணலாம். கிறித்தவத் திரள்வாதத்தால் தனிமனித சிந்தனையும் ஆன்மீகத்தேடலும் முழுக்க முழுக்க கட்டுப்படுத்தப்பட்டன, மீறல்கள் ஒடுக்கப்பட்டன. அதை ஐரோப்பிய  நாகரீகத்தின் இருண்டகாலக்ட்டம் என்று இன்று குறிப்பிடுகிறார்கள் (There are very valid analyses in the 4 part analyses of Ayn Rand and then there are the mistakes too).

9. Jeyamohan on Sam Pitroda and Mangalyan

10. "The story of India's telectom revolution' - Livemint and WSJ -

"Pitroda, in fact, torpedoed attempts to bring mobile telephony to India in 1987, as Panagariya records".

11. Badri Seshadri's blog on Mangalyan


Prabhu Sunderaraman said...

"though Pitroda had nothing to do with Mangalyan"

I think JM only brought up Pitroda's speech as an example to highlight the fact that we don't know what we have in store in the future; so no point in criticizing Mangalyan.

As a reader of JM, in all his articles on rebuttal, he only emphasizes the need to disagree with respect and basic understanding of the essence of the topic; And only when one doesn't he blames them and questions their credentials, which in my humble opinion is not incorrect, given a writer of his calibre.

Given the fact that JM is an ardent fan of MK, he has always learnt(I think he still does) from his mistakes and changes stances and opinions once he understands the facts even better. And I think that's a fantastic quality he has in him to be able to go back and review his thoughts and ideas; Yeah, you may argue that a writer with so many followers cannot afford to change stances, but to me that has been his endearing quality.
Anyways, after reading realms of mindless criticisms of JM's articles, this article seems to be a constructive one, though I choose to disagree with all pleasure :)

Anonymous said...

அமெரிக்கப் பயணக் கட்டுரையொன்றில், அமெரிக்கக் கருப்பர்கள் கோட்-சூட் அணிவதற்குக் காரணம் அவர்தம் தாழ்வுணர்ச்சியே என்பதாக அன்னார் எழுதியதாக நினைவு. எந்த ஒரு சமூக நிகழ்வைப் பற்றிக் கருத்துரைத்தாலும், அது குறித்து தான் நீண்ட நாட்களாகவே “கூர்ந்து உற்றுநோக்கி” வருவதாக ஒரு பிம்பத்தைத் தோற்றுவிப்பதும், பிறகு “நான் ஆராய்ச்சியாளன் அல்லன், இலக்கியவாதி மட்டும்தான்” என்று நழுவுவதும் அன்னாரின் வழமை.

Athenaeum said...

@Prabhu Sunderraman:

// he only emphasizes the need to disagree with respect and basic understanding of the essence of the topic// -- I dont disagree with that. My point is he fails to show the same to others. See the examples in my blog. He cooly alleges that Adichie's book was ghost written. He accuses Dawkins of being a racist.

Anonymous said...

ஜெயமோகன் அவசரகதியில் எழுதுபவர்.பல சமயங்களில் மிகவும் மேம்போக்கான புரிதலை வைத்துக்கொண்டு தான் அனைத்தையும் அறிந்தது போல் எழுதுபவர்.ஒரு கட்டுரையை எப்படி கோர்வையாக எழுதுவது, ஒரு கருத்தை எப்படி விவாதித்து நிறுவுவது, தரவுகளை எப்படி கையாள்வது போன்றவற்றில் அவர் செல்ல வேண்டிய தூரம் அதிகம்.நாகரிகமாக,அறிவார்ந்த விவாதத்தில் அவரால் ஈடுபட முடியாது.அவர் போன்றவர்கள் அறிவு ஜீவிகளாக கருதப்படுவது அவப்பேறு.
வ.கீதா,எஸ்.வி.ராஜதுரை,நாகார்ஜூனன்,பெருந்தேவி,ராஜன்குறை தமிழவன் - தம் வாதத்தினை, கருத்துக்களை சரியாக முன்வைத்து எழுதுபவர்கள், தரவுகளை தருபவர்கள்.ஜெயமோகன் எழுதுவது மட்டையடிதான்.

nothing new said...

Good one... Sam pitroda had nothing to do with technology revolution? Pls verify...

ஏவிஎஸ் said...

Good analysis and commentary. I read him quite extensively for years overlooking his ideological blinds, factual inaccuracies, use of absurd logic, and other things. But the intellectual dishonesty that he so willfully engages and the resultant disrespect to his readers stopped me from reading him anymore. He may seem like a literary giant now, but when his works are considered comprehensively by the future generation, he will be found a midget.